When Immigration Status Leads to Teen Suicide

By Krystal Gomez
Advocacy & Policy Counsel

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Joaquin Luna, an 18 year old high school senior from Mission, TX, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, dressed up in a suit and tie, and kissed his family goodnight. Then he walked into the bathroom of his family home and shot himself in the head.  In the letters Joaquin left behind, he expressed frustration, disappointment, and helplessness due to his immigration status.

Joaquin had dreams of becoming an architect or an engineer.  Like many Americans, he dared to dream the American Dream; he believed that you can achieve anything if you work hard enough.  So Joaquin worked hard, studied hard and stayed out of trouble.  And, it paid off: He had gained admission to prestigious Rice University.  While most hard-working high school students would have been overjoyed with this news, it reminded Joaquin that, because of his immigration status, that he would not be able to work in the country he’d called home since being brought here when he was 6 months old.

Joaquin’s story hits close to home for many Rio Grande Valley residents who remember the days when the border was simply an arbitrary line drawn by unknown powers with hardly any impact on relationships, families, or business. The shock of his suicide has rippled throughout the region and isn’t confined to those who work on immigration-related issues.  Today at lunch, I overheard two different groups of people, a group of nurses and another group of workers from a nearby big box store, discussing with great sadness what happened to Joaquin.

This tragic story should serve as a wake-up call….to everyone.  The anti-immigrant sentiment that has found a foothold in the country and in Texas isn’t just empty political rhetoric without consequences.  It creates an environment that dehumanizes people. At the ACLU of Texas, we are committed to changing the immigration debate from escalating intolerance, hate, and violence. Instead, we urge all sides to focus on our shared values of justice and compassion.  Join us in our fight by signing up for our Community Action Network. You can make a difference.

Private Prisons: The False Promises

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

ACLU’s Banking on Bondage report gives us a history of the private prison industry in the United States and reveals detailed accounts of the questionable tactics the industry uses to influence criminal justice policies. It also documents that many of the “advantages” claimed by the prison industry to market itself are not even necessarily true.  We don’t think mass incarceration is ever a good idea, but at a time when states are strapped for cash and crime rates are low, it certainly doesn’t make good sense to continue to throw taxpayer money at the private prison industry – especially when private prisons don’t always save the state money or benefit local economies.  Worse, for-profit prisons have very limited incentive to lower recidivism rates and effectively rehabilitate prisoners.

We’ll take a look at the prison industry’s false promises:

  • Private Prisons Save Taxpayer Dollars: Private prison corporations offer themselves as a “solution” to fixing budget crises by saving “hardworking taxpayers’ dollars.”  For example, the GEO Group claims a 20 to 30 percent cost savings in facility development and a 10 to 20 percent cost savings in facility management.  Some reports have shown cost savings, but not all of them have – and the reliability of at least one of these studies has been questioned due to the researcher’s connection to the private prison industry. Based on research done in Hawaii, Arizona, and New Jersey, the ACLU report shows “most objective cost studies show little or no cost saving to taxpayers coupled with an increased safety risk” and that housing inmates in private prisons “may be more costly.” The only real way to save hardworking taxpayer money is to find alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, something the private prison industry lobbies directly against!
  • Private Prisons Benefit Local Economies: Private prison companies argue that private prisons spur economic growth, offering jobs to residents and increasing revenue for towns.  Again, the ACLU report highlights studies that have shown that opening new prisons is not “worth the investment for struggling rural communities.”  For example, some counties only receive $2 per prisoner per day from the private prison operator, all while the prison might be obtaining subsidies and receiving municipal services like water and sewer services, which cost taxpayers money.  In contrast, the report highlights a private corporation in Arizona making almost $64 dollars per prisoner per day, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) raking in almost $90 per day for each detained immigrant in a San Diego facility.  Compare that to the $2 mentioned above, and it is clear that most of the money is not being returned to the counties and towns.
  • Private Prisons Rehabilitate Prisoners and Reduce Recidivism: When profit is your main goal, creating programming to help a large part of your prime market population never need your services again would not be a good model.  Effective rehabilitation would do just that to the private prison industry.  In order to make more money, some private prisons cut corners by eliminating training programs that would promote rehabilitation. Some so-called cost-savings may also make prison environments even more violent and dangerous through over-crowding and under-trained guards.  The report documents many religious groups’ opposition to private prisons, mainly because the for-profit model is in direct odds with effective rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

The ACLU report clearly shows that private prisons are not the answer for our criminal justice system.  It reveals that private prison corporations,  through their powerful lobbying efforts and  fluffy yet false public relations campaigns, create false impressions to influence public opinion and policy makers trying to make educated and smart decisions about incarceration and lower cost, effective alternatives. We urge you to share this report widely, and to get more involved with ending private prisons in Texas.

Voter ID: Texas Didn’t Get it Right, but we Hope the DOJ Will

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

“You need an ID to be able to check out a book at the library.  Why shouldn’t you need one at the polls?”  We heard this argument in support of the new Voter ID bill over and over again at the Capitol during the last legislative session.  The answer, of course, is that the right to vote is constitutionally protected, whereas library privileges are not.  That’s why a library can charge a fee for a library card, but even the most stringent supporter of the Voter ID bill would cringe at the idea of a poll tax.

We argued long and hard against passing the new voter ID bill in Texas, but unfortunately the anti-immigrant haze that covered the Capitol during the last legislative session clouded fair and smart decision-making to ensure the integrity of the vote. The new law, which will require a state-approved picture ID for all people voting in person, is supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2012.  Because Texas has a history of voter disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act requires the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that any new voting law does not discriminate against minorities.

The DOJ is waiting on the state of Texas to provide the racial breakdown and counties of residence of the estimated 605,500 registered voters who do not have a state-issued license or ID. They are also asking how many voters have Spanish surnames.  Apparently, the Texas Secretary of State’s office will provide the information but Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the agency said it will be significantly skewed and won’t be very reliable.  One reason for this is because the category “Hispanic” wasn’t included until 2009.  Rebecca Acuna, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said that the limited data that the state has already furnished shows that Hispanic voters would be disproportionately disenfranchised.

The ACLU of Texas was against this bill from the beginning, as it will clearly discourage or downright prevent many eligible voters from voting.   ID cards are not easy for all Texans to access – there are 34 Texas counties without a DPS office and 46 additional counties where DPS offices have been temporarily closed. In West Texas that means some people may have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain the proper ID to vote.  This is unacceptable, especially when the bill was based on a problem – voter fraud at the polls – that simply doesn’t exist in Texas.  We hope that the DOJ will come to the right conclusion – that the voter ID law in Texas is discriminatory and will disenfranchise voters who are legally entitled to vote.  Stay tuned!

Private Prisons: How the Industry Sells Such a Bad Product

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

There is no evidence that increased criminal penalties and stiffer sentences benefit society or lower crime rates.  In fact, as Texas has shifted away from incarcerating non-violent offenders, serious crimes have declined.  This is something the private prison industry doesn’t want the public to know and the industry has developed ways both to advocate for locking up more people for longer periods of time and for convincing some lawmakers that private prisons are the best place to put these prisoners.

The ACLU Banking on Bondage report dedicates a section to exploring how the industry markets its product.  As the report explains, not every private prison company is guilty of all these tactics, but overall the impact is powerful enough to undermine smart-on-crime solutions to over incarceration.

  • Questionable Financial Incentives

Money is power, and the report cites instances of legislators and other government officials accepting financial incentives from the private prison industry. For example, in Pennsylvania, a county judge who was responsible for skyrocketing rates of imprisoned juveniles was found guilty of racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy in connection with his acceptance of $1 million from the developer of a private juvenile facility that was benefiting from increased juvenile sentencing.

  • The Revolving Door Between Public and Private Corrections

A large number of private prison industry employees were previously employed by state corrections. online casino .  As the report documents, this has resulted in some private facilities not being scrutinized by the government departments that are charged with overseeing them.   In one of the more egregious cases the report highlights, a West Texas juvenile facility run by The GEO Group, Inc was awarded a 97.7% grade for overall compliance. An independent review of the facility found that “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine, and were in need of paint.[and] water leaks [were] numerous throughout the facility, creating an unsanitary and unsafe environment for all youth and staff.”  The independent auditors actually left the facility with large amounts of fecal material on their shoes.  The review found that some of the state-employed monitors of this facility had recently worked for GEO before changing positions.

  • The Private Prison Lobby

The private prison industry heavily lobbies both state and federal governments.  For example, the report finds that between 1999 and 2009, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison corporation, spent over $18 million on federal lobbying alone.   Many companies also hire lobbyists to influence various state governments. Furthermore, the report shows that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that brings together state legislators and private corporations, drafted successful legislation designed to promote mass incarceration at the state level. CCA had a major role in the development of this legislation.

  • Campaign Contributions

It doesn’t stop with lobbying – the private prison industry spends massive amounts of money on campaign contributions.  The report shows that since 2000, the leading private prison companies have contributed more than $6 million to candidates for state office.  CCA and GEO also have their own political action committees.

  • Control of Information

Maintaining a positive public image is of utmost importance to any successful industry and the private prison industry is no different. They have well-done websites that highlight their “good” work and hire communications firms to write puff pieces that highlight awards, charity events, and a shining (but not representative) example of how they care about the well-being of prisoners. Not surprisingly, negative reports – about cases of sexual abuse or violence in facilities, for example – rarely get communicated to the public. Furthermore, private prisons are not held to the same open government standards as their public competitors, which means that it can be near impossible to get information about what is actually going on behind private prison walls. CCA has even blocked information from a group of concerned shareholders.

It is incredible that a policy so important to society – how we deal with offenders – is shaped more by the power of money, lobbying, and public relations than justice or community standards. Next week’s blog on the Banking on Bondage report will examine the false claims of cost savings and safety promises the private prison industry uses to sell its wares.

Texas tough? John Bradley has a change in heart…We hope he acts on it

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Apparently Texas prosecutor John Bradley has recently gotten in touch with a previously unknown side of himself.  The side that tries “to see cases from both sides,” before putting somebody in prison for life, or worse, putting them to death.  And the side that recognizes that the “tough on crime” approach can produce blinders that send innocent people to jail and leave the actual criminals on the street.

After fighting so hard against reexamining the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (who was convicted and executed based on evidence experts consider to be “junk science”), and staunchly fighting efforts to free Michael Morton (who was recently exonerated after suffering 25 years of his life in jail for a crime he did not commit) why the sudden change of heart? Actually, from our perspective the why is much less important than the question of how Mr. Bradley will use his change of heart to ensure a more just criminal justice system in Texas.  As The Texas Tribune mentioned, Bradley is a legendarily tough Texas prosecutor: If he speaks up against prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions, people will likely listen.  He could start by calling for a review of all the case files held in Wilco to ensure that no other cases were mishandled.  He could follow the lead of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, and create a Conviction Integrity Unit to ensure proper prosecutorial procedures.  We would like to see Bradley push full steam ahead and use his new found viewpoint to advocate for real change.  Without concrete action on Mr. Bradley’s part, his change of heart is just empty rhetoric. We hope that is not the case.

Private Prisons: The Explosion

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Released earlier this month, the ACLU’s report titled Banking on Bondage provides a detailed analysis of the connection between mass incarceration and the private prison industry.  The ACLU’s findings are highly relevant to one of our nation’s leading jailers –  the Lone Star State.  This three part blog series will summarize the three main parts of the report:  the private prison explosion; the private prison sales pitch; and the false promise of private prisons.

Mass incarceration makes no sense – it strains budgets, it unnecessarily deprives individuals of liberty, it needlessly breaks up families, and it fails to make us safer.  So, if society does not benefit then who does?  By following the money, one quickly finds that the private prison industry sure gets a sweet deal.  The growth of private prisons and skyrocketing incarceration rates have gone hand-in-hand over the last few decades.  A coincidence? We don’t think so.

A few facts that the report points out:

  • Between 1970 and 2005, the number of people incarcerated in the US grew by 700%.
  • The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • For profit prison growth went from 7,000 inmates in 1990 to 129,000 inmates in 2009 – that is a 1600% increase.

Incarceration rates started increasing with President Nixon’s War on Drugs.  Even though this “tough on crime” approach has proven to be very expensive and highly ineffective, many of the laws are still in effect.  The private prison industry works hard to keep it that way.  While prisons may be necessary to keep dangerous criminals from doing harm to others, they are quite often counterproductive when dealing with non-violent offenders.  And, prisons come at a cost.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies in the US, have combined annual revenues of $300 billion. Their chief executives rake in more than $3 million a year.  With profits like that, it is no wonder they fight to keep harsh sentencing laws, even if the laws harm our state’s economy and undermine public safety.  More prisoners and longer sentences reinforce the false perception of a need for more (private) prisons.  The report details how the industry influences public policy decisions through lobbying, offering financial incentives and campaign contributions, and controlling information.  Many of the resulting “tough on crime” policies have disastrous effects on society all while benefiting a small group of private prison executives.  Next week’s blog will analyze the private prison industry sales pitch.

The Houston Chronicle Discusses Role of Race in Practice of the Death Penalty

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

African Americans make up about half of the murder arrests in Harris county, but they get charged with capital murder at a much higher rate than whites or Hispanics.  In fact, this week’s article in The Houston Chronicle points out that 12 of the last 13 men who have been sentenced to death have been black.  While the Harris County DA, Pat Lykos, says that decisions are made in a “race neutral” fashion, we find it hard to stomach that black men make up the large majority of those killed at the hands of the state – especially when they are arrested for murder at the same rate as whites.  Those numbers just don’t add up to “race neutral.”

On a nationwide and state level, capital punishment is racially disproportionate.  We hope legislators, DAs, and other decision makers read the Chronicle’s reminder that regardless of race, religion, or ethnic origin, we ALL have a right to due process and equal protection.  The death penalty is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorney, race of the victim, and where the crime took place – this violates equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution.  Harris County has sentenced more than a third of the Lone Star State’s death row inmates, half of them black. We agree with the Chronicle: It is time for Texas to put this barbaric and racist system behind it. Help Harris County measure up as a place that treats all people with equal justice.   By signing up for the ACLU of Texas’ Community Action Network you can learn how to get more involved in our work across the state.

Tearing Families Apart

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Imagine that you have been living the constant nightmare of being physically abused by your spouse.  Fearful of being deported, you have never called to report this crime, but finally the day comes when you can’t take it anymore, and you make that fateful 911 call.  The local police come to your aid – until they realize that you are living in the country without sufficient documentation.  At that point, some communities require local police to detain you and turn you over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Your kids?  They are picked up by Child Protective Services (CPS) and put into the foster care system. If you’re lucky, you might see them again.

A new report by the Applied Research Center shows that this practice happens altogether too often.  According to the report, SHATTERED FAMILIES: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, in the first six months of 2011 the federal government removed more than 46,000 mothers and fathers of US-citizen children.  In the best case, once the legal proceedings are finished (which can take many months), the families are reunited.  But, due to barriers to reunification, many parents experience the worst case:  They are indefinitely detained or deported to their home country and may lose contact with their children. How does this happen?

As the report details, a parent, while detained in an immigration detention facility, may be prevented from complying with a CPS’ child welfare case plan for various reasons.  In some instances, court-ordered attorneys may not be able to find them, so they miss their dependency court hearings.  In other cases, ICE may refuse to transport them to a hearing.  Often it is completely out of the immigrant parents’ control what happens to their children during their detention and a parent’s worst nightmare:  They have no  idea where her children are, and if they are okay.

If a parent is deported, CPS often has a hard time locating and contacting the mothers and fathers to apprise them of their  children’s’ whereabouts.  Assuming  mothers and father are finally able to contact CPS from their home countries, they are told  CPS will not consider reunification unless they can arrange  for a home study, complete parenting classes, and find a job within a certain federal deadline – often difficult in many developing countries.  If the parents fail to complete this plan, or if the child is out of their custody for 15 months out of any 22 month period, federal law requires CPS to petition the court to terminate parental rights.

Immigration policies and laws are based on the assumption that families should be united, but in practice this is not always the case.  The report estimates that there are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care whose parents have been detained or deported, and this number is projected to increase by 15,000 more children in the next five years.

Not surprisingly, the report found that areas where local law enforcement is more involved in immigration enforcement have a higher incidence of families being torn apart.   Victims of domestic or gender-based violence face the unconscionable choice of continuing to live in an abusive relationship or risk losing their children.   This is a decision no parent should ever have to make.

Breaking up families is detrimental to society and is not consistent with American values.  According to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, children in foster care are more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, become pregnant as teenagers, and are less likely to hold a job. Tearing children away from their parents whose only crime is not having the right papers is a cruel practice, destroys families, serves no benefit to society, and underscores  yet another reason why local enforcement of federal immigration law is the wrong policy.

Time to Stop Drinking the Privatization Kool-Aid

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

(Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)

In 1990, there were 7,771 prisoners held in private facilities in the US.  By 2009, that number had jumped to 129,336, a 1664 percent increase.  Along the way, the private prisons became a multi-billion dollar industry.  This growth was fueled, in part, by the “pitch” that privatizing prisons would save tax dollars.  As the ACLU documented in its new report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the private prison industry’s narrative is in need of serious revision. 

Last spring, the myth of cost savings through prison privatization was shot down by the head of Texas prisons, Brad Livingston, who testified before the House Corrections Committee that non-salary operating costs of public and private facilities are almost identical.   The ACLU report found that private prisons may fail to save tax payer money, and furthermore, in order to maximize profits, they are strongly incentivized to cut corners which can result in poorly trained employees, and affect the wellbeing of prisoners.

So, if private prisons aren’t cheaper, aren’t more efficient, and aren’t run in a better manner why do we have them?  A major reason, as the report documented, is that beginning in the 1990s, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and corporations to discuss public policy and draft model legislation, began to push legislation that would result in mass incarceration and promote private prisons.  Some of this legislation, such as “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws may sound familiar.  During this time, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the leading private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  In addition to ALEC, the private prison industry employs an army of lobbyists throughout the country.  CCA and The GEO Group, Inc., the two largest private prison corporations, hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011.  Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level. 

Mass incarceration is the natural by-product of a powerful industry whose bottom line requires incarcerating as many people as possible, regardless of the impact. And, the private prison companies don’t try to hide their goals. For example, this is what GEO stated in its filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (The report shows that CCA had a similar statement in its SEC filing):

“reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

This model is broken because it is based on incarceration instead of crime prevention. For-profit private prisons are not the answer to making our streets safer and our society more productive. Instead, we must focus on creating a system that is less is harmful to our pocketbooks, protects our safety, and respects basic human dignity.